Newcomers could boost Giants' offense
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz -- The Giants have assembled the type of pitching that keeps their team in games and consistently gives them a chance to win. But great pitching still needs offensive support. Realizing they need to score more runs, San Francisco has made attempts this spring to upgrade its offense.
During this past offseason, the Giants completed important moves to increase their chances of outscoring the opposition. They traded starting left-handed pitcher Jonathan Sanchez to the Kansas City Royals for outfielder Melky Cabrera. They also traded outfielder Andres Torres and pitcher Ramon Ramirez to the Mets for outfielder Angel Pagan.
Cabrera was coming off his finest season, having hit .305 with 18 home runs and 87 RBIs. He scored 102 runs in 155 games. With the acquisition of Pagan to play center, Cabrera became the new left fielder. Both offer speed and contact to a lineup that can benefit from both. Last season, Cabrera stole 20 bases and Pagan swiped 32.
In addition to the spark the two new outfielders may provide, their presence has caused additional roster ramifications. Brandon Belt, a left-handed hitter who played some left field last season in San Francisco, won a roster spot primarily as a first baseman. Viewed as a potential power threat, Belt is a player who requires consistent at-bats and playing time to improve his raw skills. It will not help Belt or the Giants to have him sit on the bench and watch others play.
Belt is tall and thin at 6-feet-5, 220 pounds, with a good Minor League history. He could stand to add some upper-body strength, but what we see now is probably close to full body maturation. In his two seasons of play, he has put up very good Minor League numbers. Belt has hit .343 in 670 at-bats and has 31 home runs over several classifications.
Following an outstanding 2010 Minor League season, Belt earned a spot in the Arizona Fall League. That's where I first saw him play. It was evident he was an agile, well-conditioned, highly athletic prospect. He had just completed a Minor League season where he hit .352 across several levels, including Triple-A.
In the Fall League, Belt showed extremely good hand-eye coordination with a very solid, compact swing. He made consistent contact and had a very low strikeout rate. He took pitches where they were thrown and he used the entire field to spray long shots to the gaps or smack base hits. He hit equally well against left-handed and right-handed pitchers. I was impressed.
Belt was promoted to the Major League club last season in an effort to help jump-start the Giants' offense. Like many hitters coming from the California-based Minor League hitting environment, Belt found better-quality pitching and a greater challenge at baseball's highest level. While he was able to blast a very credible nine home runs in his 187-at bats, he hit only .225. Some wondered if he had the skill to hit for average against top-shelf pitching.
Belt has a great deal to offer, as he plays solid defense with sure hands and quick feet at first base. He has a strong and accurate arm that would allow him to return to the outfield, if needed. That versatility and his ability to break a game open with his slight uppercut swing are attractive to a team seeking pop. This spring I saw the same quality hitter I witnessed in the Fall League. At only 23, Belt has upside remaining, probably as a middle-of-the order hitter.
Belt has company at first base. Right-handed veteran Aubrey Huff remains with the club as a capable first-baseman/outfielder. But in addition to Belt and Huff, the Giants have another budding power hitter in 6-foot-4, 225-pound Brett Pill.
Like Belt, Pill is tall and thin with the potential to extend his arms on outside pitches and slam the ball over the wall. Unlike Belt, Pill hits from the right side of the plate. Together, they provide the club with a high-octane one-two punch from both sides of the plate. At 27, Pill is older than Belt and he has completed parts of six seasons in Minor League baseball.
Last season at Triple-A Fresno, Pill hit .312 while belting 25 home runs and knocking in 107 runs in 536 at-bats. Like Belt, Pill makes very good contact. He struck out only 54 times, which is a very impressive figure, especially for a big power hitter. His huge 2011 season came after Pill was designated for assignment at the end of 2010. That season, he hit .275 at Fresno. Pill went unclaimed after his release and he was re-signed by the Giants.
Despite his size, Pill has played second base in his career. Rarely, if ever, does a player play that combination of defensive positions. His value to the Giants, however, is as a first baseman with power enough to end a game with one swing. He may not be as good of an overall athlete as Belt, but Pill certainly has the athletic makeup to sustain solid mechanics and strength over the course of a long season.
Belt had an outstanding spring, hitting .378 with three homers in 74 at-bats. Pill didn't hit as well for average this spring, batting just .239 in 67 at-bats. He also hit three homers.
Another new Giants player really made a splash this spring. Left-handed-hitting outfielder Gregor Blanco batted .333 to become a much-valued utility outfielder. He used an outstanding on-base percentage of .395 and 13 stolen bases out of 14 attempts to call attention to himself and win a roster spot.
Blanco is a 28-year-old speedster who was signed by the Braves in 2000. He has played in the big leagues with Atlanta and, most recently, with the Royals. His first Major League experience took place with the Braves in '08, when he hit .251 over 430 at-bats. He last played in the Majors with the Royals in 2010.
He hadn't broken out with any one dazzling tool until he opened eyes this spring by flashing the ability to read pitchers and steal bases almost at will. Blanco showed the Giants an ability to make things happen from the top of the order. However, as was the case previously in his career, Blanco struck out too much in Spring Training. For him to provide maximum value, he has to either put the ball in play or see enough pitches to accept more walks. If Pagan struggles, Blanco will be available to provide quality play in center field and set the table at the top of the batting order.
There are a number of very exciting players on the Giants' roster. Of course, Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval and others offer excitement every time they step on the field. But Belt, Pill and Blanco will undoubtedly bring a much-appreciated offensive buzz to the club.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.